Theory of reference based on salience – project overview

The project investigates the nature of linguistic reference. The underlying idea is that a referential relation between an expression and an object is not uniform but shaped by different factors related to the context (such as various forms of salience, being demonstrated by the speaker, being conversationally relevant, etc.) and the expression’s content. The semantic value of a singular referential expression is determined via a ranking mechanism and is to be identified with the object which best satisfies the relevant criteria. While defending reference pluralism, we argue against a dominant approach in philosophy of language on which the speaker’s intentions play a central role in fixing reference. The project’s aim is to elaborate on a semantic theory incorporating the idea of reference pluralism, primarily for demonstratives, but with a perspective of applying the theory to other terms.

In the project, we have so far examined the nature of selected salience factors and their significance to referential interpretations. Our studies focused on deictic and anaphoric types of reference and crucially applied experimental methods. In the first part of the studies, we examined the role of speaker’s intention, demonstration, descriptive content of an expression, and perceptual salience. The results confirmed the prediction that the intention is not the main reference-determining factor. We presented and discussed our results in the paper “Against intentionalism – an experimental study on demonstrative reference” We also formulated a philosophical defense of non-intentional theories of reference, according to which, intentions are explanatorily redundant and intentionalism must implicitly adopt non-intentional factors if it is to be correct (paper submitted). As for the anaphoric reference, we investigated the role of word order, the status of a discourse object (i.e., discourse-old vs discourse-new), and amount of additional information about it (relative-clause constructions). Our theoretical framework for studying anaphora was Centering Theory, which directly incorporates the idea that the object realized by an expression is determined based on a salience ranking. Our studies used the empirical method of self paced reading and coherence judgements (paper submitted).  

We are currently developing a theory of demonstratives which incorporates reference pluralism, with a focus on complex demonstratives (i.e., expressions of the form ”this/that F”). According to our proposal, demonstratives ought to be conceived as generally anaphoric in the sense their semantic value is dependent on an already made-salient element of the context — whether linguistic or extra-linguistic. Their semantic interpretation proceeds thus as anaphora resolution, which is to identify the proper antecedent for a demonstrative (on a standard use) and bind its value to it. A deictic use means that the demonstrative’s value ought to be ”bound” to the  ”antecedent’’ in the extra-linguistic context. The choice of the proper antecedent — for both anaphoric and deictic uses — is determined by a combination of different contextual criteria discussed above. Furthermore, the description in a complex demonstrative expression (i.e., ‚F’ in ”this/that F”) provides a relevant criterion that an antecedent must meet and thus the descriptive content has a genuinely presuppositional role. Non-standard uses of complex demonstratives (like attributive or quantified-in) are also treated as kinds of anaphors and as triggering the relevant presupposition, which does not nonetheless go with a salience requirement. We proposed a variant of Discourse Representation Theory in order to implement the advocated approach into a formal semantic account of demonstratives (paper in preparation). 

The project team is: Wojciech Rostworowski (principal investigator), Katarzyna Kuś, and Bartosz Maćkiewicz;

Student participants include: Marta Kasprzyk, Alicja Krasnowska, Karolina Jastrzębska, Piotr Biegański, Kalina Szewczak, Grzegorz Płuciennik, Anna Jasińska